As my sister and I drove along Puerto Rico’s sleepy southern coast, the landscape seemed to change with the same quiet gradualness as the island’s time itself. Slipping slowly and fluidly from green, mountainous hills to rolling, sun-bleached plains, soft slopes flattened into long stretches of beach seemingly out of nowhere. Rarely posted at over 55 miles per hour, the winding highways allowed us to enjoy the progressive variation of terrain, almost subconsciously, as the scenery changed as subtly as the hour on the radio clock. In comparison to San Juan (not to mention the East Coast back home) things in southern Puerto Rico moved slowly in the most wonderful way.
As someone who consistently functions about forty-five minutes behind schedule, seven days of drowsy late starts and meandering drives with nowhere to be but the beach was right up my alley. Sticking to my cardinal rule (“When you’re already running late, always stop to grab food”), most days began with a big breakfast on the later side of 10am, only to conclude somewhere on the beach with a good book, as every vacation should. My sister and I split this trip between two destinations: Ponce and Patillas. Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second largest city behind San Juan, is rich with history and decorative colonial architecture. Patillas, a beautiful, laid-back, mountainous region, is rightfully referred to as the Emerald of the South.
The Puerto Rican Caribbean
At both locations, my sister and I spent our days hopping from beach to beach, starting with the drive from our Air B&B in Ponce to Playa Sucia in Cabo Rojo. Nicknamed “The Dirty Beach” in an attempt to discourage tourists (like our good selves) from crowding its stunning sands, it’s no wonder its frequent visitors wish to keep this spot a secret. Likewise, our visit to Playa Punta Tuna in Maunabo during our three-day stay at our seaside hotel in Patillas was equally as enjoyable. We had stopped by Punta Tuna late in the afternoon following the most incredible lunch looking over the water (enter bikini food baby), only to find that aside from a couple of frolicking pups, we had the place to ourselves.
Playa Sucia, Cabo Rojo
Playa Punta Tuna, Maunabo
Caribe Playa Beach Hotel, Patillas
Exploring Ponce & Yauco
Always at the mercy of others when it came to getting from point A to B during my time in India and Southeast Asia, nothing felt better than being handed the keys to my own rental car on arrival at Ponce’s Mercedita Airport. While driving around Puerto Rico in a rental did come with some anxiety (although, to our credit, only once did we back into a parked car directly outside of our restaurant’s front windows), it also came with the sweet taste of freedom. With complete control of our own schedule and nothing but time on our hands, we’d often park up and spend a few hours wandering around Ponce and its surrounding cities on foot. Our strolls almost always resulted in the discovery of a quaint café or a hole-in-the-wall restaurant serving traditional Puerto Rican cuisine. While Ponce offered some gorgeous examples of well-preserved colonial facades, the city of Yauco’s steep hills allowed for some incredible views of its colorful yet soft and muted architecture.
Isla Caja de Muerto
Isla Caja de Muerto, in translation meaning “Coffin Island” or “Dead Man’s Chest”, is a stunning, uninhabited island located off of Puerto Rico’s southern coast. At around 8:30am on the final day of our trip, we embarked on what turned out to be a surprisingly boozy and high-spirited forty-minute ferry ride to the island—the group of almost entirely Spanish-speaking passengers singing and dancing along to an array of songs I would have given anything in that moment to have known the words to. Upon reaching the dock and exiting the ferry, however, the clamor of the fun-loving crowd was almost instantly absorbed by the island’s towering cactuses and rippling waves. With very little breeze and about five miles separating the oasis from the rest of civilization, this rather serene atmosphere remained present throughout the afternoon. As we floated in the island’s turquoise waters and walked along its succulent-lined hiking trails, Isla Caja de Muerto easily became one of the most enchanting spots I’ve been in a while.
Mofongo, Medalla & More
Don’t let the beach pics fool you—as I hinted earlier, in most of the photos I can be seen attempting to mask one seriously large food baby (in the Maunabo post-lunch pics, perhaps a healthy set of twins?). I am not ashamed to say that our schedule was as monopolized by food as it was by our desperate efforts to rid ourselves of what can only be described as the “Alien Beige” winter skin tone. (My sister once went as far as to point out my likeness to Mr. Krabs without his shell. Talk about an insult). But with Puerto Rico’s cuisine consisting of the most aromatic Spanish, African, and native Taíno influences, we found it difficult to go more than a couple hours without discussing our next meal. These were some of our favorites:
Cafe Cafe, Ponce
Our visit to Cafe Cafe jumpstarted one of those late mornings I was talking about. The restaurant’s vibrant interior alone was enough to wake us up, although the awesome espresso selection certainly didn’t hurt either. Surrounded by funky local art and the soft sound of Spanish chatter, my sister and I enjoyed our first taste of Puerto Rico’s Cocina Criolla, feasting on a chopped romaine salad with balsamic glaze, mofongo stuffed with fresh mahi-mahi doused in garlic butter, and, of course, a side of rice and beans.
La Guancha Boardwalk, Ponce
Paseo Tablado La Guancha, or simply “La Guancha,” is a lively restaurant-lined boardwalk in the city of Ponce. Although a tad Las Vegas-y thanks to the neon lights and loud music, it was still a great spot to enjoy a few cocktails as the sun set over the harbor. We stopped to stroll along the boardwalk on both our first and last evenings in Ponce, grabbing a couple of passion fruit mojitos and local Medalla beers before heading off to dinner.
A good portion of our afternoon in Yauco was spent at a tiny outdoor café known as Cafeito. Equipped with our novels and limited (yet persistent!!!) Spanish (we really tried, okay), my sister and I ordered a couple of lattes and found a spot in the shade. The plein air café offered patio-style seating as well as a fully stocked bookshelf built into the side of the shop’s exterior.
Restaurante Paisajes Curet, Patillas
Now this was a great spot. Located four minutes from our hotel in Patillas, Restaurante Paisajes Curet practically dangles off the side of a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Ocean. Although the menu didn’t exactly deviate from other restaurants serving traditional Puerto Rican cuisine (which was totally cool with us), the food was perhaps the best we had all week. We shared a side of rice and beans (as per just about every meal) and my sister ordered the sopón de pollo con arroz (chicken and rice soup). Sticking to my pescatarian roots, I enjoyed a salmon fillet in a Creole sauce, a side of mofongo, and one tall glass of passion fruit juice. Check out that view!!!